Many years ago I first became interested in Danish films. I had seen a trailer for Susanne Bier’s film In a Better World, and was very drawn to the story. I was eventually able to see the movie, and determined to explore the Danish film culture more fully. I quickly embarked upon some Internet research, which revealed the existence of a long and important history and culture of Danish filmmaking. I absolutely love history, but found myself drawn to an examination of more contemporary works. I always feel that in the majority of cities in the United States, movie viewers are severely limited in their access to contemporary, popular foreign cinema. As an average viewer living outside a metropolitan area I have incredibly limited access to popular Danish cinema, which is a real shame. So, while I found incredibly extensive lists of films and filmmakers on the Internet, I realized that I would be limited to seeing what I could manage to get my hands on. Internet movie lists tend to vary, as you might imagine, but one consistency among all was listing your film The Celebration as one of the quintessential films of the Danish New Wave of the 1990s, as exemplified by the birth of the Dogme 95 movement. At the time, I had no idea what the Dogme 95 movement was, but I was determined to see your film.
I sent away for the film, and soon it arrived at my house. I did not know what to expect beyond what my quick examination of the “Vow of Chastity” and Dogme Manifesto allowed me. I knew that the camera had to be handheld, the film had to be shot on location, there could be no additional props or sets. Though I knew all of this, while watching the film I was first struck by the aesthetic rawness of the images. Now, after having been lucky enough to watch the FABULOUS documentary Side by Side, I know that the film was shot on a small, borderline-consumer, digital camera. I remember listening to cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle discuss the freedom of movement that using such a small camera allowed him. He was given a type of artistic allowance unattainable with the use of a traditional bulky film camera. When I first viewed the film, I was unaware of these particular details of construction. Nonetheless, while I was taken by surprise by the visual raggedness, as a young aspiring filmmaker, I found that raggedness incredibly inspiring.
In my life I have been lucky enough to participate in the filmmaking process. I have made 6 short films under similarly rigid constraints to those enumerated in the “Vow of Chastity.” I was in high school and in college (not majoring in film), and was faced with a lack of financial resources. I have always been of the opinion however, that a lack of financial resources should not be an obstacle to making a quality film. If you, as a filmmaker, are able to present a compelling enough story, people will watch it and appreciate it even if the filmmaking conventions present are not as refined as might be found in a high-budget Hollywood film. Many of my favorite directors, yourself included, have made films in this way- films in which story, character, and acting are paramount- stories that are visually engaging, but lack the gloss of conventional Hollywood cinema. Festen showed me that there are filmmakers in the world committed to story, and that these films, while never to be as widely known as something like Star Wars, are still capable of being made and appreciated by an international viewership.
I recently came across a book of interviews with Danish filmmakers published in 2000 (The Danish Directors: Dialogues on a Contemporary National Cinema by Mette Hjort). In preparation for writing this letter I read your interview, and I would like to address two points in particular. The first is, at the time of the interview, you expressed that in film school you were the least interested in camera placement and the visual aesthetic of filmmaking. You were always more interested with the writing, the language, the acting. Although in my own analyses of film I tend to enjoy cleverly and beautifully composed compositions (films are visual after all), I can also appreciate your perspective. Often it seems as though film analyses are too preoccupied with visuals and shunt other aspects of the film, such as story or sound, to the wayside. Reading that you, a respected and successful director, held this view was refreshing. I know subordinating the visual in film may offend some cinephiles, but I think it is an interesting alternative perspective on the art form that ought to be taken into account. (I would also like to note that in the interview you did express a firm desire to dedicate yourself to the study and exploration of the nuances of mise-en-scene). The second point from this interview that I would like to address is your approach to music in your films. As an MFA student studying sound design for visual media, I always appreciate it when directors directly address the use of sound in their films. In academic analyses of sound use in cinema, one is often forced to extrapolate a director’s intent, and some directors more directly concern themselves with sound than others. To read the important narrative role music plays in your films affirmed my musings about the importance of sound in your work.
In addition to Festen, I have had the pleasure of viewing Submarino and most recently, Jagten (The Hunt). This past quarter I was able to write an extended analysis on the use of sound in this film. I enjoyed the minimalism of the sound design. Because the viewer was not bombarded with excessive layering, he or she was able to focus on the intimacy of the story, which made the violation of Lucas’ character all the more powerful. In addition to the minimalism of sound layers, a mix technique commonly found in horror films was employed in which sound was carefully and subtly removed prior to emotionally significant moments in order to heighten the feelings of oppression and unease evoked by the scenario of the story. Silence when one expects sound is profoundly unsettling, and the sound design of Jagten used this principle to its fullest to underscore the theme of isolation.
Movies such as Jagten illustrate that a film does not need to have flashy sound design to be worthy of recognition or analysis. The sonic composition of dramas can be equally creative as those of high-budget action pictures. Understanding the subtle ways that filmmakers like you, in collaboration with your sound team, manipulate sonic aesthetics to achieve emotional, social, and cultural communication help scholars continue to unpack the important role that sound has to play in the study of film.
Thank you for creating sonically conscious films. I will continue to study your body of work (hopefully I’ll be able to get my hands on some of your lesser-known films here in the US), and will continue to look forward to the release of your next project!